A New Year Carol

New Years Past

I remember one really great New Year party. I was in high school, and we were visiting my cousins. The party was great for a lot of reasons. I thought my cousin and his friends were cool. We were in a strange city, so none of the people at the party knew me. (As in, none of the people knew that I wasn’t cool.) And all the parents had gone to a party at another home, which made it a cool party even if nothing terribly wild happened.

There were other parties, some  “cooler” than others. But mostly, when I think of New Years past, I think of rented movies (remember those?), pajamas, and takeout Chinese food.

One year when my eldest was small we got ambitious and went downtown to see the fireworks. We found a vantage point close to the action , which proved to be a spectacular judgement error. The toddler was TERRIFIED of the noise, but because we were at the very front of the crowd it was difficult to move back to a lower decibel location. I spent the whole show with my mittened hands clamped over the ears of  a sobbing child.  After that we went back to celebrating at home. Over time, Chinese food was replaced with things the kids would actually eat, and rented movies gave way to whatever family-friendly specials happened to be on TV.

One New Year when the kids were too young to stay up late, but old enough to negotiate, we were suckered into allowing them both to stay up until midnight. We all piled on the big bed in the master bedroom to watch TV. Both girls decided that the most comfortable seat was on Mom, so I spent the evening fighting to maintain some circulation in my legs, and some peace between my daughters.  The later it got, the less charming my overtired offspring became.  Shortly before 11:00 pm, the youngest, and grouchiest, child left the room for a bathroom break. While she was out of the room we hastily located a channel from a time zone one hour later and swore her older sister to secrecy with the promise that, if she didn’t rat us out, she could stay up until it was really midnight. When daughter #2 came back into the room, the TV was counting down to midnight. The con succeeded, and she was out cold in her own bed by 11:08, satisfied that she had achieved her goal.

Par-tay!
Par-tay!

New Year Present

As my children grew into their teens, my New Years evolved . Some years my role was to be home waiting for the call to pick them up from their festivities. I did manage one year to go to hear a friend’s band, but for the most part my New Years are quiet. Mostly that suits me just fine. This year I don’t even have any pickup duties. I might watch a movie or curl up with a book. I’ll stay up until midnight, but then I do that regularly. I will actually enjoy the solitude.

New Years Yet to Come

But lately it has occurred to me that I may have erroneously left the universe with the impression that solitude is all I enjoy. That I wouldn’t ever be interested in a big noisy party. It’s true that there have been lots of years when a quiet night at home truly appealed to me. But I have a secret to confess.

Someday, some year, I’d like to go dancing.

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Becoming

As someone who likes to write about  personal change, it would be hard for me to pass up a Daily Prompt about metamorphosis: “Tomorrow is the first day of a brand new year. Tomorrow you get to become anyone in the world that you wish. Who are you?”

OK Daily Prompt, this one is easy, and not just because I wrote this poem many years ago, but because all these years later I still know that the one thing I most want to be when I grow up is to be just like her…

Almost smiling! She hated being photographed.
Almost smiling! She hated being photographed.

Psalm

grand/mother
in my childish eyes
I see you stately and serene
in tailored navy dresses punctuated
with a hint of coloured silk
your sparse unruly crown of grey
all disciplined with net and pins

I am six and I have
asked you the same riddle
every day this week     “what
do you call a dog without
a tail”    and though i
know you’re very smart
you never get the answer
“hot dog” and you always
laugh and i feel clever

we play cards    you teach me
how to lose by playing to
win    you teach me how to win
by letting me

at your funeral we toast you saying
not a woman here who doesn’t wish
that some of you lived on in her

i inherit
your engagement ring    the one
i learn    you flung across a golf course
in a fit  of rage at your fiancé
my grandfather

with this ring
this story
changes everything

grannie I’m still throwing things in anger
and my hair is creeping grey
your ring fits loosely on my hand
i haven’t had it altered
I’ve been praying
i’ll grow into it someday

Happy New…anything

calendarIf you really think about it, the hoopla surrounding the arrival of a new year is a bit puzzling. Part of me wants to insist that January 1st is just an ordinary day, made significant only by the inconvenience of having to go out and buy another calendar. There are all sorts of other “new years” we might just as easily recognize. Where I work, everything revolves around a budget year that starts on April 1st. I could easily make my August birthday my own personal year marker.  As a former teacher, the beginning of September still resonates for me as a time for new beginnings. I also grew up with the Christian liturgical year which starts four Sundays before Christmas with the season of Advent. So why make such a big deal about the first day of January?

And yet I still get caught up in it. Not so much in the “new-year’s-resolution” sense, but more in the “reflecting back and looking forwards” sense. As arbitrary as it may be, there is something about the changing from one year number to the next that seems worth celebrating.

Since this is my first New Year’s since starting my blog, I’ve been thinking for some days now about what I wanted to post to celebrate the start of 2014. From what I’ve seen there seem to be three common approaches for an “approaching the New Year” blog post:

  1. The Retrospective post. Given that this blog has only been in existence since September 12, a “year in review” where I revisit all my most popular posts over the past 12 months seems both self-indulgent and silly. Maybe next year.
  2. The Resolutions post. I could write a list of New Year’s resolutions. Except I don’t really make resolutions. At least not in the traditional sense of “here are ten things I’m going to change utterly about my life that I will doubtless have given up on by Valentine’s Day.” More about that later.
  3. The “Why I Don’t Make Resolutions” post. To be honest, this one is the least appealing, mainly because it’s hard not to feel as though it has all been said many times over.

The truth is, the celebration of the New Year appeals to me because it’s all about starting fresh. A new calendar page. A clean slate. Whether you make formal resolutions or not, you are still getting handed a fresh, new untouched bundle of days/weeks/months that are yours to do with what you will.

I like the New Year because it’s a time when, briefly, the rest of the world joins me in reflecting on the positive aspects of change. You see one of the reasons I don’t typically make New Year’s resolutions is that they would be indistinguishable from the resolutions I make every other day. Resolutions about making better use of my time and money. Resolutions about eating healthy and getting more exercise. Resolutions about projects that need finishing and friends I am overdue to call.

A few years ago, during a time when my life was in some chaos, I adopted as my mantra the phrase “change one thing.” I discovered that, regardless how out of control my universe seemed, there was always one thing that I exercised a degree of control over– one aspect of my life in which I could make a choice.  I also discovered that if I changed one small thing, it often led to other bigger changes that I hadn’t dared to hope for.

The changes didn’t have to be big ones. In fact most of the time they weren’t. They were simple things. Make a cup of tea at the office in the morning instead of stopping to buy coffee on the way to work. Rearrange the living room furniture. Go for a walk downtown at lunch instead of surfing Facebook at my desk. The point was simply that they were a change. And a change that resulted from a choice I made.

Which is why I am always making resolutions. Because there is always something worth changing. Always a choice to be made. And because I’m human enough to make lots of bad choices, so there is always room for improvement.

When I was in grade six, my mother decided to quit smoking. But she didn’t just resolve to quit smoking. Instead she told herself: “today, I am not going to have a cigarette.” She told herself that for weeks and months– perhaps years– of consecutive “todays.” The fact that I am telling you this forty years later is some indication of the degree to which I was inspired by her example.

So actually yes, I will be making resolutions for January 1st. But I’m not planning to publish a list of them, because to be honest they aren’t that special. They are the same sort of resolutions I will make for January 27th, or March 11th, or November 16th.  You see, even though we are celebrating the start of a whole new year, the reality is that the year only gets doled out to us one day at a time. And every and any one of those days is a new opportunity to make a small change that will add weight to all the other small changes that ultimately add up to becoming the big changes in your life. So every day is an opportunity for a new resolution. To change one thing.

Striking Clarity

Today’s Daily Prompt invites me to “Tell us about a time you’d been trying to solve a knotty problem — maybe it was an interpersonal problem, a life problem, a big ol’ problem — and you had a moment of clarity when the solution appeared to you, as though you were struck by lightening.” Once in a while a Daily Prompt comes along that irks me so much that I have to deconstruct it. Let’s start with spelling. I don’t think the phrase “struck by lightening” was meant to evoke mental images of armies of rogue hairstylists attacking their unsuspecting victims with forced highlights and bleach jobs, but seriously WordPress, the word is lightning. Without the e. Now that I have that rant off my chest…

I suppose a blog with the tag line “Seeking clarity in the meandering muck” ought to have something to say on the topic of clarity. Certainly there have been times when I have had that “aha moment” where suddenly the solution to a thorny problem seems to present itself to me intact–like Athena springing fully formed from the head of Zeus. Athena is, among other things, the Greek goddess of wisdom, inspiration, strategy and skill. So she is a fitting symbol for solving problems, isn’t she?

Except that that’s not how I generally solve problems. There’s a lot more “meandering” and “muck” in my problem solving process than there are armed warrior princesses springing into instantaneous action.

North - after flood 2Ideas don’t pop up out of nowhere. They germinate down in the river-muck of our minds and we meander along, day after day, not knowing how we are ever going to tackle that problem, until one morning the barest slip of a green sprout breaks through.  It may seem as though the answer has come from nowhere, but in reality you have been growing that answer in the fertile soil of your subconscious for some time before it makes its appearance.  Sometimes I think what we take for a “new” idea is just a sudden willingness to see for what it is a truth that we have been staring at for ages. Often when I have come up with a solution to a particularly tenacious problem, I have realized that the solution has been there all along. The “aha” part was simply my recognition that no one but me was actually going to put that solution into action.

Saying that a solution comes to you “as if you were struck by lightning” is actually more meaningful if you know something about lightning. When lightning strikes something on the ground, the flash that we see is actually travelling upwards. In other words, if you happen to be the unfortunate object of a real lightning strike, the electrical flash we see is lightning is jumping from you into the clouds. If you don’t believe me, read this.

In other words, you are the origin of the lightning strike. Even the solution that seems to have come from out of the blue, has actually come from you. It just looks like it came from somewhere else and hit you.

I find this infinitely comforting. I would much rather believe that the solution to my problems lies within me, than to wait passively for some sort of divine but fickle inspiration.

Maybe the Daily Prompt’s spelling mistake was a fortunate accident. Maybe we are really talking about lightening after all– in the sense of “bringing light to” a situation. The lightning strike isn’t the source of the clarity after all. It just illuminates the problem long enough for us to see that we have it in our power to be the author of our own solutions.

Christmas Angels

There’s a comfortable predictability to Christmas Eve church.  There will always be a little girl in a red velvet dress running up and down the aisles to remind me of a time when it was my own little girls doing the running. There will be a mountain of poinsettias in front of the altar, ready to be delivered to the parish shut-ins after the Christmas services are over. There will be the crèche, and the candles. There will be lots of people we see exactly once a year, including a lot of tall teenagerish-looking people who look faintly like a bunch of little kids I remember from Christmases not so long ago.

And of course the story is completely familiar. The long journey, the stable, the baby, and a bunch of shepherds who suddenly look up to discover they are surrounded by angels trumpeting the good news. This year it was the part about the angels that struck me the most. Perhaps I had angels on my mind after yesterday’s post. Perhaps it was the preacher’s assertion that if a host of angels showed up and told him to “be not afraid,” he was quite certain that he would be afraid nonetheless. But the shepherds, according to the story, drop everything they are doing and go off to see the baby on the word of the angels.

I think that’s why I am fascinated by the part of the angels in the story this Christmas– because, whatever theological significance they might have, for me right now they represent something about embracing the unexpected. As it turns out, some of the best things about this Christmas have been the unexpected. Daughter #1 was able to spend more of the day with us than anticipated. We had some last minute additions to our Christmas dinner table this evening.  Daughter #2 officially took up the baton as chief turkey cook while I ran an unexpected errand at the critical moment. We had to improvise around a couple of dinner traditions because of items that were inadvertently left behind, but it all fell wonderfully into place.

We even managed to embrace the less “angelic” unexpected events– like a bad skid on an icy road that resulted in me rear-ending another car on the way to my sister’s for brunch. No one was hurt. The other woman’s car didn’t have a scratch. And my front bumper… well, the insurance will cover that, and in the meantime the car is still driveable. It could have been much worse, and I came away feeling more grateful than shaken.

The wind went down while we were at church on Christmas eve. When we came out it felt almost warm in contrast to the -30 Celsius wind chill we have been enduring for a couple of weeks. We stopped on the way home to walk a friend’s little dog that we are looking after while her people are away. It was so lovely out that after we got back from the first walk, the dog insisted on going out a second time.

When we arrived home, daughter #2 and I climbed through the snowbank up onto the dike to look at the river. Along the top of the dike there is still a well-worn path, but the snow on the slope going down towards the river bank was undisturbed. We just stood there and enjoyed being outside without suffering immediate frostbite, and then my daughter turned to me with an impish smile.

“Want to make a snow angel?”

“YES!” (I was, I confess, actually thinking to myself, “I really want to make a snow angel…”)

snow angel 5
The photo is dark because a) it was dark, and b) if you are a 52 year old woman making snow angels in a public park, it is probably better that way!

So we did. And it was great. Doubly great, because it was one more activity that I couldn’t have engaged in with my pre-surgery hip.

And then my daughter stomped MERRY X-MAS in the snow along the riverbank in ten-foot high letters. Probably big enough to be seen from across the river.

For sure big enough to be seen by the angels from their vantage point in the heavens.

snow angel 2

Hark the Herald Angels Sing

Christmas pageants always make me cry. There’s  something about little kids dressed up as shepherds and angels that always undoes me.

She was dressed as an angel that year. I sat in the pew, beaming proudly as she took her place on the chancel steps with the rest of the angel chorus. Then I realized that she was crying.

In the brief minutes she was up there, I played through all the scenarios I could think of. Had someone said something to upset her? Was it stage fright? Had she hurt herself downstairs while getting in costume? Was she moved to tears by the deep significance of the story she was helping to portray? At the age of 7?

When the makeshift stage lights went down on the last of the wise men, I rushed into the chapel to see what was wrong. She was out of costume by the time I got there, and looking much more composed.

“You were great sweetie, but how come you were crying?”

She showed me her finger, still red where the thread had cut into the flesh. Her angel robe had had a loose thread at the end of one sleeve. She had absentmindedly wrapped the thread around her finger and then couldn’t get it loose again. Poor kid had been crying in pain the whole time she was “on stage.” Fortunately one of the Sunday School teachers had managed to free her finger once she discovered the problem. By the time we got to the after-church snack she had shaken it off. I was the one still feeling distressed.

I missed the kids’ pageant this year. Now that my own kids have outgrown Sunday School, it’s not quite the draw it once was. There are other things that make it Christmas for me now. Certain songs I have to sing–Hark the Herald Angels Sing  is one of them. Certain stories I have to hear. Certain people I need to gather with. It all comes together for me in this Christmas classic:

Wishing you peace and love this Christmas and always.

Ready or not

With this kind of help it's a wonder anything is ever ready.
With this kind of help it’s a wonder anything is ever ready.

Somewhere around the middle of December those awkward conversations that happen when one meets a casual acquaintance on the elevator start to stress me. I’m sure you know the conversations I’m taking about– the ones that normally revolve around the weather, and start with nice safe statements like “that was some wind yesterday” and “sure hope it warms up for the weekend.” I can manage a benign dialogue on these meteorological subjects for several floors without breaking a sweat. But I have come to realize that there is one elevator conversation-starter that I truly dread.

“Are you ready for Christmas?”

For some reason I feel like I am supposed to provide an actual answer to this question, rather than the usual meaningless elevator small talk. I think way too hard about my response, mentally kicking into overdrive as I silently review the status of my gift-shopping list and my pre-Christmas errand list and the to-do list on my desk of all the things I should really try to get done before I go on vacation. I generally blurt out a lame response like, “Almost.”

I wish I knew why I feel so pressured by this question. I know that the people asking it are just doing it to fill air space– that they don’t really care whether my gifts are all wrapped and my cookies all baked– that they aren’t really judging me on the basis of whether or not the tree is up and the lights hung.

Why then do I catch myself judging myself?

What does it really mean to be “ready” for Christmas? In the Anglican tradition in which I grew up, we spend four whole weeks of Advent getting ready for Christmas. Four weeks in which we light candles and reflect on the significance of the child whose birth we are celebrating. That is, if that is still what we are celebrating.

I admit to being one of those annoying people who starts Christmas shopping in August. I’m not a big fan of shopping in general, so If I can spread it out over a longer period it is less of a burden. Even so, I am almost always dashing out to pick up something at the last minute. This year in spite of carefully buying the various components of Christmas dinner for which I am responsible well ahead, I have still thought of one more thing I will have to go out and buy amidst the throngs of last-minute shoppers.

Even when I’m ready, I don’t feel ready.

I think it has something to do with the fact that the older I get, the more complicated Christmas gets for me– the more I understand that Christmas happens in spite of us. If you are sick or hurting, Christmas doesn’t wait until you feel better. If you are lonely or sad, Christmas doesn’t wait until you feel more like celebrating. Christmas doesn’t care if you are ready. It comes regardless. And, because we have imbued its coming with such significance, with such–dare I say it– baggage, its relentless determination to arrive on schedule despite our degree of readiness can make the things that weigh us down seem all the more weighty.

If you are grieving, the fact of Christmas  can make the grief harder to bear. If you are alone, Christmas can be even lonelier. When you are low, there is nothing like the expectation that we will all be “merry” to make you feel even lower.

You know the song “We need a little Christmas?” It’s a mall and radio station favourite, because it screams Christmas without anything suspiciously religious like shepherds and stars. But do you know where the song originates? It’s actually from the Broadway musical Mame. The song comes at the point in the plot where everything has gone about as wrong at it can go. Auntie Mame has lost her job, and lost her fortune in the stock market crash. If you listen carefully to the lyrics, they aren’t exactly merry:

I’ve grown a little leaner
Grown a little colder
Grown a little sadder
Grown a little older

 

Essentially the song is saying that we need a little Christmas to distract us from the fact that, at this precise moment in time, life sucks.

Since I started writing this post I have put the finishing touches on my 5-year old nephew’s made-to-order Darth Vader cape and reversible Indiana Jones vest. (Yes, I’m THAT aunt. Jealous?) I have wrapped my last gift. Aside from that one last grocery run, I am ready for Christmas.

And for me, at this point in time, life doesn’t entirely suck. But I know people– people I care about– for whom it does. And Christmas is coming whether they are ready for it or not.

That’s why I was delighted to come across a blogging  initiative called C4C– which stands for Company for Christmas. You can read all about it here. It’s being managed this year by a terrific blogger who goes by the handle Rarasaur, and the premise is that bloggers volunteer to spend some time online on Christmas day so that other bloggers who are alone on Christmas have a community to interact with. I continue be amazed at the kinds of connections that happen in the blogsphere. Just when I start to get the cynical feeling that 99% of the blogs following mine are either spammers or out to enlist me in some pyramid scheme, something like C4C comes along and restores my faith in humanity.

Because when it comes right down to it, being ready for Christmas doesn’t really have anything to do with how many tins of cookies are stacked on the kitchen counter, or how overdrawn your bank account is. Remember the Whos down in Whoville? Even after the Grinch stripped their homes of all the gifts and treats and trappings of Christmas, they were still ready. Ready to hold hands and be a community that celebrates together even when times are tough. Now I’m ready.